What does Godzilla mean to me? All I had were half-remembered fragments. A sense that I loved his adventures but no concrete reasons why. Most of his movies I hadn’t seen since childhood. Some not at all. I could remember all the monsters — Biollante, Destoroyah, Mothra, Rodan, Gigan, Godzilla himself. But the stories? I had to watch them all again. Who was this character who sat so large in my mind but had become so ill-defined?
The best way to find those answers was to watch them all back-to-back — and then to take the question to the G-man himself.
Are You There, Godzilla? It’s Me, Evan
After Terror of Mechagodzilla in 1975, Toho tried launching a number of projects starring your now-heroic visage, but none took off. One such project was Godzilla vs. The Devil, which sounded pretty promising. Alas. Terror was considered one of the first flops for your series and the apex of your 1970s corny-hero phase. It ended you for almost a decade.
Toho decided that the next movie would need to be a reboot, returning to the social commentary of your original story with you once again playing the part of a vengeful monster out to punish mankind’s sins. What started as a sequel to the original Gojira became the only extended storyline in franchise history, tracking you from rebirth to final death.
Return of Godzilla began in a familiar way — a fishing boat attacked, almost all crew killed. Reporter Goro Maki (Ken Tanaka) was sent to investigate the wreck and was attacked by a giant, irradiated sea lice but saved by Okumura (Yasuko Sawaguchi), the only surviving crew member who recognized the cause of the wreck: a new Godzilla. In this story, you never returned to wreak havoc on Japan through the ’60s and ’70s. You laid dormant instead. It’s not specified here whether you survived that fateful day on the ocean floor with Dr. Serizawa or whether you’re a different member of the same species as the monster who leveled Tokyo in 1954. It doesn’t really matter. You return now in spectacular fashion, ready and willing to fuck things up.
But 1984 was a different world than 1954. In those three decades, the largest world powers — the United States and Soviet Union — never heeded calls to stop developing deadlier and deadlier nuclear weapons. They learned nothing from your rampage. Nuclear power is now a viable option for civilian energy. When you emerge here, it’s a global problem, and Japan (in this world) is stuck between the militant aggressions of the two superpowers who cannot understand why the solution isn’t simply nuking Tokyo.
Additionally, the cities that once trembled beneath your feet now towered hundreds of stories above you. Gone are the wooden structures; Tokyo is a forest of steel and concrete. Seeing you dwarfed by skyscrapers drives home the growth of Japan during the post-war period.
Japan is presented as a country of flawed humans but one that also deploys advanced peacekeeping weapons designed in the event of another kaiju attack. Here, the Super X is armed with a special beam that refracts your atomic breath. It was a little silly — another reflection of pop culture at the time — but only the first in a series of crazy technologies that inevitably fail to stop you.
“When it first appeared 30 years ago, Godzilla was regarded with awe. When the people first saw it, they thought it was a legendary beast. Godzilla was a warning. I just want to send it home.”
There are two overarching ideas in the series that follows Return. The first is a continuation of kaiju as allegories for unchecked use of human scientific advancement at the cost of natural order — if “’natural order” is defined as proper harmony among all humans, animals and the environment. The second is that you now intervene in each story as a chaotic-neutral representative of our gravest mistakes, exacting a price while also preventing further harm to that “natural order.”
Return was not your best outing. In an attempt to harken back to Gojira, the monster sequences are interspersed with human dramas that simply aren’t as interesting as those in the original film. Only one sequence stands out: Prime Minister Mitamura (Keiju Kobayashi) argues with both the Russian and United States representatives about whether it is worth nuking Tokyo to destroy you. Gotta love that Cold War drama. Nobody learned a damn thing.
Return of Godzilla ends on an open-ended note that lacks the gravitas of the original Gojira, which clinched that film as an all-time classic. Japan manages to lead you into an active volcano. Big whoop. Something-something “Godzilla returns to the Earth.” It is decidedly rushed and anticlimactic.
But overall, I was glad to see you again.
New installments of Are You There, Godzilla? It’s Me, Evan will post regularly leading up to the May 31 release of Godzilla: King of the Monsters.